(Editor's note: With George Parros announcing his retirement today, we thought it apropos to run this feature by Ken Campbell that originally appeared in our Dec. 8 Fighting Issue.)
Earlier this season, a week before his 33rd birthday, Bobby Robins played his first, and possibly only, three NHL games. He wore a Boston Bruins sweater and played for a total of 22 minutes and 45 seconds, took kneeing and charging penalties and got into two fights. That’s a grand total of three games, 22 minutes and 45 seconds, two minors and two fighting majors more than the vast number of players who chase the dream of playing in the NHL.
It was a dream that was a long time coming, one that came into focus on a summer afternoon in 2010 as Robins looked out over Lake Michigan from a rooftop patio in the tiny town of Algoma, Wis. He had just been given a new lease on life, but his hockey career was teetering on the brink of death. It was then, on that patio, after making list after list of his options, that Robins decided he was going to fight his way to the NHL.
The decision to try to make a living as an enforcer is often pragmatic and deliberate, as it was with Robins. Sometimes it’s a business decision, the way it was for former NHL enforcer George Parros. Other times, it’s made, or made for you, in a split second, the way it was with Marc Laforge. Some, like Tie Domi and Tiger Williams, are players with decent skills who actually enjoy fighting, but they’re a rare breed. Most fighters, suddenly or over the course of time, come to realize their fists are going to be the only things that make their marks on the game.
Take Robins, for example, and let’s go back to that rooftop patio in Wisconsin. It was a summer of indecision and insecurity for him. The previous season, he had signed with a team in Denmark, then found himself in Austria after the team went bankrupt. But it was off the ice where Robins faced his most daunting challenge. For the previous 11 years, he had been addicted to chewing tobacco, not thinking much about the ramifications of sticking the stuff in the gullies of his mouth until he was brushing his teeth one morning and noticed a white spot at the back of his mouth. He waited a week to find out it was a benign growth that was the result of an undetected wisdom tooth.
“All I could think of was, ‘I could lose my face, I could die,’ ” Robins said. “Fighting is scary, but not as scary as that.”
It was then that Robins, at 28, decided to evaluate his life and his goals. One day when his wife was away at work as an x-ray technologist, he made a list of all his options, one of which was to play in the NHL. Under that option, he listed the things he would have to do to achieve it. To play the fearless and reckless style he felt would make him an effective player, he knew he’d have to start fighting and prepare to answer for his big hits.
“It was a very conscious decision,” Robins said. “You experience fight or flight, and the first four years of my career I chose that flight option. When I came back to North America, I decided I was going to make a run for the NHL, and I knew that for me to do that, I was going to have to choose the fight option. I knew I was going to have to go into the belly of the beast and see what happened.”
And he did it with gusto. Since that time, Robins has been in more than 100 fights, working his way up from the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL to the American League and finally, this season, earning a three-game audition with the Bruins. He was on the roster for a fourth game, but didn’t dress. He fought Luke Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers and Michael Latta of the Washington Capitals and was declared the victor in each one. The way Robins saw it, the only way to get better as a fighter was to do it without picking his spots and measure his progress with each fight. If it all sounds very rational, it’s because that’s exactly what it was. Robins, like many other fighters, epitomizes the dichotomy between on-ice behavior and off-ice sensibilities. Enforcers are often the gentlest souls off the ice, and many of them got their jobs because they were intelligent enough to realize their limitations as players.
Robins has an English degree from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell where he said he “balanced Poetry 101 with smashing opponents through the glass.” Robins does a lot of creative writing on his own blog (bobbyrobins.com). In an almost 10,000-word dispatch titled “Metamorphosis,” Robins recounted his early days of withdrawal when he decided to quit chewing tobacco cold turkey that summer: “I can only describe the feeling as this: I felt like I was going to explode and all my insides would splatter all over the room, but the explosion would not be a violent or sudden one, but a slow motion explosion, a bulging release of ripping sadness in a high-pitched hiss, like some coiled snake lurking behind the drywall, with a deep scarlet venom sack tucked away in the back of his mouth, back behind his razor fang, and it’s filled with the most potent nicotine extract the world has ever known, cooked in antiquity by some satanic alchemist in a time forgotten, melted down from an ancient monolith that once mapped the stars and solstices.”
Not every decision to become an enforcer is quite that dramatic. When Marc Laforge left his home in Sudbury, Ont., to play for the Kingston Canadians at the age of 16, he was coming off a midget season in which he had just 42 penalty minutes. His father hated fighting and made his feelings on the subject known to anyone who asked. His bantam coach recounted how Laforge’s Sudbury team was playing the Toronto Young Nats in the Ontario championship, and the Young Nats were running roughshod over the Sudbury team. The coach had to convince Laforge to go out and run a couple of opponents.
By the time he retired 17 years later, Laforge was seven minutes short of 4,000 penalty minutes on 17 teams in six leagues, including 14 NHL games during which he fought four times and accumulated 64 PIM. In 1987, he went from fight to fight in a bench-clearing brawl while playing for the Sudbury Wolves, punching opponents from behind. It earned him a lifetime suspension from the Ontario League and cemented his reputation as one of the game’s biggest goons.
It all started in Kingston, under Canadians coach Rick Cornacchia. Laforge had his first fight against Barry Burkholder and discovered the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a cheering crowd after a fight. That moment, along with strong messaging about his role, set the player on a path from which he could not deviate. Laforge is now a 46-year-old fireman in Sudbury. He still devotes his life to fighting, but there is a higher sense of purpose to his confrontations now.
“If I had known how things were going to turn out, I would have joined the fire department when I was 25,” Laforge said. “Being a fire fighter is much more fun, much more fun. You think fighting is fun for two or three years, then you don’t think it’s much fun anymore.”
Once he fought that first time in Kingston, Laforge said he was pigeonholed as an enforcer. He was 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and, wanting to secure his place on the team, was more than willing to do what it took to play regularly. Laforge figured he would establish himself as a fighter to earn his spot in the lineup, then use that opportunity to prove that he could be more than that. But it didn’t work out that way. He kept fighting, continued to get suspended, and before he knew it he was a second-round pick of the Hartford Whalers for one reason and one reason only. Of his four NHL fights, one was against Marty McSorley. But it was another fight, one that was decidedly in favor of Darin Kimble, where Laforge’s mindset changed.
“It was then that I realized, ‘I’m not the toughest guy in the world,’ ” Laforge said. “And after that I played scared. I still had to fight, but I was nervous every single time. I didn’t get a decent night’s sleep for almost 20 years.”
George Parros was also pigeonholed as an enforcer early in his career, something that didn’t bother him because that was how he’d mapped out his career after being drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 1999. That’s the same season he started at Princeton, an Ivy League school that also produced Kevin Westgarth. The summer after he was drafted, Parros went to a Kings development camp, and it was there he decided, like Robins, he was going to have to fight to play his style.
Parros, who studied economics, simply made a business decision.
“I don’t know if it was as cut-and-dry for other guys, but for me it was a very deliberate decision,” Parros said. “I was big and tall and I liked to play physical, and the college game was pretty well suited for me because I could run around like a cannonball. At the Kings camps, I realized that if I was going to play that way, people were going to take offense to it, and I didn’t want to have to back down.”
It turned out to be an educated decision. Parros fought his way to a seven-year NHL career in which he made $5.6 million, became the first Princeton University alum to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup and earned cult status with his willingness to fight and his trademark mustache. Parros tried to learn on the fly, with his first-ever fight coming in a development camp against an Anaheim Ducks prospect named George Davis. That fight was followed with 218 fights as a pro (169 in the NHL and another 49 in the minors).
It wasn’t the career path Parros envisioned. Fighting wasn’t a means to an end as much as it was another skill Parros felt he needed to develop to play in the NHL. But it wasn’t long before Parros was labelled an enforcer and the cycle began. It paid him a lot of money, gave him a lot of fame and, unlike a lot of other enforcers who are tormented by what they have to do to play in the NHL, it never seemed to bother him.
“I have no regrets,” Parros said. “I’m happy with my career and what I accomplished. People expect certain things and you kind of just become that player. If I had gotten my brains knocked in early it might have been different. It was easy for me to do it. It was always more of a business-type decision for me.”
Boby Fugere works by day as a garage door installer for Mauricie Trans-Portes in Shawinigan, Que., and by night as a frequent fighter for le Blizzard Cloutier Nord-Sud in the North American League in Quebec. He’s 24, stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 290 pounds, though he used to be 330. That was a couple years ago when he realized he wanted to get back into a serious level of hockey after playing Jr. A in Quebec and a couple stints in the Quebec League.
He was playing garage league hockey and installing garage doors, and he wanted something more. The prospect of making an extra $10,000 a year to play hockey helped, too.
A guy that big is not going to have the kind of foot speed to play at any decent level of pro hockey, but he could play in the NAHL, which is known as the closest thing to Slap Shot since the Johnstown Chiefs. So he hit the gym and began training with a mixed martial arts instructor and still takes boxing lessons twice a week. And he’s put them to good use. In his first seven games this season, Fugere racked up nine fighting majors and failed to register a fight in only one game. He would have more fights, but he was suspended two games. Clearly, Fugere didn’t get the memo that fighting is on the decline.
“In this league, we need fights,” Fugere said, whose statistic line in the NAHL reads 39 games, 0-0-0 and 216 PIM. “A lot of fights and brawls. We need fights because if we don’t people will leave the arena and will never come back.”
Four fighters, four distinct approaches to their craft. Unlike Robins, Laforge now looks back on his career and doesn’t believe it was worth the mayhem. Robins has not a single regret about the way he made it to the NHL. For him, becoming an enforcer was as much a life decision as a hockey one. Goalies and fighters often mature later than other players, and Robins never forgot that. One of his coaches in the minors was Steve Martinson, a tough guy who made his NHL debut at the age of 30. With his successful attempt to quit chewing tobacco serving as the catalyst, Robins then faced his fears by confronting them head-on. And as he fought more, it got easier every time.
Prior to last season, he signed a two-way deal with the Bruins that pays him $100,000 in the minors and $600,000 in the NHL. He spent seven wonderful days in the show, during which time he made more than $22,000. That might be the extent of his career earnings in the NHL, but it’s always been about more than the money.
“I just kept getting closer and closer to my goal,” Robins said. “All of a sudden, I had an AHL deal, then I signed an NHL deal and it just kept building. To see it all come together was one of the most profound things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve proven it to myself, and I hope to play many more (NHL) games. But whatever happens, I’ve proven to myself that I can accomplish that.”